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Andy Behrens

Tip Drill: The five worst habits in fantasy football

Andy Behrens
Roto Arcade

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OK, so fantasy football may not be a higher-level theoretical exercise, but it isn't exactly Battleship or Pictionary, either. There are certain complexities to the game. As the NFL evolves, so does the fantasy version.

If you're still assembling teams in 2010 using the same methods you employed back in '92, when Barry Foster carried you to a championship, then you're probably doing it wrong. The game, as they say, has passed you by.

(For the record, if you're still spacing your shots like you did 20 years ago, then you can probably still win at Battleship. The PT boat is key. In Pictionary, try hiding letters in the drawings. It's technically cheating, so don't get caught).

Here at Roto Arcade, we're all about winning titles. Just like the smug, ring-laden dude over on the right. But this year's win won't look anything like last year's win, which bears no resemblance whatsoever to any of the glorious wins of the 90s. The NFL is a league that we need to constantly re-learn. Our purpose here today — and hopefully this will have utility for new gamers and old — is to discuss the habits we've successfully broken over the years. A few of these things were good ideas back in the day, but they're now relics. At least one of these things was never a good idea (No. 3), and it just took some of us a little while to come around.

If you don't adapt in the imaginary game, you lose — and if you lose, then you reflect poorly on this fantasy blog. We can't have that. Let's get to work…

Bad Habit No. 1: Believing you can draft a perfect team

No you can't. Stop pretending. There's very little chance that your fantasy draft, or anyone's draft, is going to be flawless. We won't be using it as a teaching tool in next year's Tip Drill. Your draft is not going to go well, at least not when measured against the insane expectations you'll set for yourself (and your players) in August.

The NFL is defined by variability. Players re-write scouting reports every year, and they often do it week-to-week. Matt Cassel(notes) can begin one season on the roster bubble and open the next with a $63 million deal. That's the league. If talent evaluation were so easy, then professional teams would be much better at it. Some franchise would have drafted Tony Romo(notes), or Wes Welker(notes), or Antonio Gates(notes), or Pierre Thomas(notes), or Ryan Grant(notes), or any of the other dozens of useful players who went unselected. But they didn't, because player projection is a wildly imperfect science.

In fantasy leagues, as in reality, a non-trivial percentage of total value goes undrafted. Last year, Cleveland's Jerome Harrison(notes) and Kansas City's Jamaal Charles(notes) were the highest scoring running backs over the final three weeks of the season, when fantasy championships were settled. Thus, a case can be made that those two were the most valuable players in the game. (You'd lose that case to the person who argued for Chris Johnson, but still, the argument can be formed. It's not ridiculous). When the regular season began back in September, Harrison was owned in just one-tenth of one percent of Yahoo! leagues, and Charles was only 0.6 percent owned — and again, these were the playoff MVPs.

I like to think that I speak from a position of modest authority here, as Earth's most accurate fantasy analyst. (Ahem). The sooner you stop thinking that you can have a perfect draft, the better off you'll be. If you're going to win competitive leagues, you need to be the owner who jumps quickly on next year's Harrison and Charles. Aggressive in-season management is at least as important as having a solid draft. And because drafting legitimately well is such a galactic improbability, you should constantly reach for talent at the draft table. This means you'll have to defy the herd. But it's much more important to win the league championship in December than to win the consensus "best draft" title in August.

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Bad Habit No. 2: Overrating the importance of preseason "news"

The truly intelligent NFL teams aren't going to tell us anything meaningful, period. Ever. They definitely won't tell us anything significant before Week 1. At this point in the exhibition season, you should almost assume that any curious depth chart positioning — like, for instance, the Jamaal Charles-Thomas Jones situation — is purely motivational. Right now, teams are giving us disinformation and propaganda. The smartest franchises give us nothing at all.

My favorite example that illustrates this point dates back three years (and it does not reflect so well on the Boston sports media, but they're a small casualty). Back in early September in 2007, a rumor percolated that the Patriots were actually going to cut Randy Moss(notes), the receiver they'd just acquired from Oakland via trade. This was an actual story, reported by respected sources. Here's a link. Moss, as you'll no doubt recall, was on the brink of a record-shattering season. He caught nine passes for 183 yards and a touchdown in Week 1, then caught two TDs in each of the next three weeks. He finished the season with an obscene 23 scores.

But if you were hawking the preseason rumors, you had the early scoop: The Patriots were disgusted with Moss. Only fools drafted him.

Bad Habit No. 3: Worrying about the bye weeks

As we've already mentioned, none of you are going to have dead-on faultless drafts. In fact, if you get five guys right, that's awesome. You'll set the curve. Fantasy experts need to sell you on the possibility of the perfect draft, but that doesn't mean such a thing will happen, except by accident.

It's like my colleague Scott Pianowski says: The NFL is a reshuffle league. The notion that you can look nine weeks ahead and plan for your tight end's bye is absurd. Don't waste your time. By the time Week 9 rolls around, your tight end is going to be suspended and/or injured and/or demoted.

Also absurd: The idea that you can target a good or bad matchup three months ahead of time. Last September, anyone would have told you that the Giants defense was a brutal thing to see on the fantasy schedule. Then, in the final month of the season, that team gave up 35.5 points per game.

Don't even spend a moment in the draft considering bye weeks or mid-season matchups. Just draft talent at all positions and all times. When you hit, try to hit big.

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Bad Habit No. 4: Neglecting the quarterback

Perhaps "neglecting" isn't quite the right word here, because it's not as if any of us will deliberately seek out a bottom-tier player at the position that tends to outscore all others. But there was a time when shrewd fantasy managers knew — absolutely knew — that the marginal difference between, say, the No. 3 quarterback and the tenth-best QB wouldn't be worth paying for at the draft. If you were the guy who took the early quarterback, you were probably dead money.

However, a funny thing has happened during the fantasy era: QBs have taken over the game. In 1992, the NFL delivered just one 4,000-yard passer. It was the same story in 1990 and '91. But in 2009, 10 different quarterbacks (including two Mannings) eclipsed 4,000 yards. If we look at the all-time top-20 individual passing yardage seasons, we find that 12 of them have occurred since 2001.

You can of course respond to this point by saying that the marginal difference between fantasy's No. 3 quarterback and its No. 10 quarterback still may not be worth the draft day pricetag. I'll concede the point. But it's no longer uncommon for a quarterback to become a golden ticket to the fantasy playoffs, like Tom Brady(notes) in 2007 or Peyton Manning(notes) in 2004. Or Daunte Culpepper(notes) in '04. Or Kurt Warner(notes) in '01 and '99. Or Randall Cunningham in '98.

Looking back on my fantasy history, I can tell you that I didn't own enough shares in those players — I basically only had the guys who were waiver wire adds. So I'm not deemphasizing the QB position, not this year. I'll take Romo in Round 4, on the chance that he'll author an all-time season. I'll accept whatever ridicule you choose to send my way in draft chat.

Bad Habit No. 5: Compulsive hoarding of running backs

Yeah, this is the toughest habit to break. Actually, if I'm going to be completely honest here, I suppose I'll have to admit that I haven't broken this habit quite yet. I'm trying. It's my struggle. Thanks for your continued support. I'm confident that you're enjoying the sudden shift to a confessional tone.

Many of us were raised in an age that expected competent fantasy gamers to draft a running back in the first round, the second, and probably in the third. And if a "value pick" fell to the fourth (terrible concept), then we were expected to take him, too. But that age also expected its running backs to get 250 carries per season, a workload that invariably leads to serious fantasy totals.

Today, the workhorse back is an anachronism. It might even be the defining characteristic of a lost organization. The prevailing idea in today's NFL seems to be that running backs are a fungible commodity, and that systems are stars. If you have a collection of backs who all possess some minimum skill level, they can be deployed almost as interchangeable pieces — and if you don't abuse them, you can maximize their effectiveness on a per-touch basis.

In 2002, 19 running backs reached 250 carries. In 2007, that number dipped to 12, and last year it was just nine. No member of the New Orleans backfield managed to hit even 180 carries last season, yet that team finished sixth in the NFL in rushing and won the Super Bowl. The Saints averaged 31.9 points per game and 131.6 rushing yards, but they don't have a running back who's selected in the first two rounds in standard fantasy drafts. The current average draft position of Pierre Thomas is 28.7, and that's based mostly on the hope that he'll be utilized differently than he was in 2009.

Bottom line: When the game changes, we need to change with it. Shed the practices of the past, take a quarterback in a crazy round, draft a tight end like he's Todd Christensen, Version 2.0. (Or actually 4.0, because two was Shannon Sharpe, three was Tony Gonzalez(notes)). If you have any unsavory habits to add to the list, by all means share them in comments. We're a welcoming community here…

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